“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet said. I learned my name when I started kindergarten. I don’t think Juliet realized no one would smell a rose if it were named something else, like “cumquat” or “poop”. No one would say, “you should take time to smell the snigglehoppers”. A rose is called thus because names mean something more than just a label.
“Her name is Amalia,” my mother told my new teacher as I stood there holding her hand tightly, “but we call her ‘Amy’”. The teacher, Miss Kelly, scanned down the list of new kindergarten students and found me.
I didn’t understand what my mother meant. I only knew the sound of, “Amy, it’s time for dinner,” and “Amy, put your toys away.” I knew to respond to that sound, the long sound of an “A” followed by “me”. I was supposed to listen. After my first day of school, I asked my older sister what my mom meant when she said my name was “Amalia.”
“Your name is ‘Amalia’,” she told me. “Like my name is ‘Larisa’, but they call me ‘Lisa’, and Jeff is really ‘Jeffery’.”
Something popped open inside me. The sound of it rolled and flowed inside of me. It was musical. It was lyrical. It was a name for an exotic princess, or a beautiful artist. I had never really connected with “Amy,” but this name set off all sorts of bells of recognition. It was the name of someone who loves deeply.
“Amalia,” I said. “That’s me.”
My family’s habit of calling me “Amy” persisted in spite of my protests. Every year in school, I tried to stake my claim as “Amalia” but invariably was defeated by a teacher who just couldn’t pronounce the “Uh-mah-lee-uh”. “Amy” was shorter, simpler.
It wasn’t until I left home and got married that I began to establish a foothold. A new family name, a new job, and new city. Most of the people in my life now call me by my real name. But there are still hold-outs: people who knew me as a child, but didn’t know my real name; people who have a hard time changing their habits. When I hear someone call the name “Amy” I often forget they mean me.
Until recently, I didn’t realize how important a name is. Digging into my deep memories, I began to feel the old, raw pain of not quite being seen every time my name was misused or not used. I shrunk inside myself, and let the world deal with “Amy.” She was good at reading, but had messy hand-writing, and wasn’t good at math. She chatted too much with her friends. She was taller than most of the kids in her class. She was shy and geeky.
A few days ago, I was scanning through some photos on a friend’s Facebook page. I noticed a distinctive difference in the smile he showed in the pictures. With his two daughters, his smile was relaxed, genuine and inspired a smiling response. In other photos, with just the right poses, in just the right places, with all the right people, the smile was just as big, his lips curved up in a perfect smile, showing perfect white teeth. But his eyes are haunted, seeking, as if to say, “Am I enough?” Maybe I’m imagining it, or maybe those who know him better read his face better. But it echoed my own longing for acceptance, the deep acceptance that says, “I matter.”
So many of us wear masks, trying to show that we matter. Mine was in the form of a name other people expected me to answer to. That later morphed into living a life of “shoulds”. You should be useful. You should be grateful. You should be helpful and kind. You should do well in school. You should get a good job that is important. You should make others happy before your make yourself happy.
I am not saying that any of these “shoulds” are fundamentally wrong. It’s the source of the motivation that leads down the wrong path. “Shoulds” come from society’s, our families, our peers’ expectations. They do not come from the heart. Unexamined shoulds lead to chasing a kind of acceptance that will never come. The shoulds lead me into a marriage meant only to make him happy, and down a career path that lead…nowhere. Answering sincerely, for oneself, the “why” questions about the shoulds leads to more purity of living. “Why should I be useful?” Because in service I find my virtues, and in finding my virtues I see my inner nobility. “Why should I be grateful?” Because in gratitude I find the joy in every circumstance, and learn the lessons inherent. “Why should I have an important job? What is important to me?” Because I have gifts to share that make the world a better place. Sharing my voice is important to me.
Each person’s “why” is unique, and resonates like that bell of recognition that rang in my heart upon learning my name. I want to look into the eyes of the people in my life and say, “You matter.” I want my writing to reflect how important you are to the universe, to the world, to me. There is a deep compassion in those words. And it doesn’t matter what faith, nameless or not, you subscribe to. When you share what you see inside someone, when you honor it, you are connecting at the level of existence. We change the “I should” to “I am,” and the “You should” into “You are.” I want to tell my friend with his haunted eyes, “You are enough. You are beautiful. You are loved.” Because I am Amalia, and that is enough.